THE BASICS: GIRLS WHO WALKED ON GLASS, an “immersive play project” with stories from contributing authors Molly Heckerling, Tatiana Gelfand, and Lucy A. Robbins, adapted to the stage by Gordon Farrell, directed by Neal Radice, runs through Saturday, June 22, Thursdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley (enter through “side door” along the north wall of Shea’s) (852-2600). www.alleyway.com Runtime: About 105 minutes without intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Based on stories of women who were physically, psychologically, and often sexually abused (and usually by a close acquaintance or a parent) this play presents six women who are living with the after-effects as they try to get on with their lives. The audience is divided into two groups and then your group is led around into smaller rooms for the rest of the evening. The mechanics are similar to a haunted house experience except that, at any point, instead of confronting a zombie you could end up less than a foot away from a character spilling her guts about being raped as a young teen. Talk about “up close and personal.” Yeah, it’s immersive, intense, and in your face, and it’s a play that will stay with you.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Neil Radice, the director, will be handing over the Artistic Directorship of the Alleyway to Chris Handley, but obviously wanted to show the world that he may be stepping down, but he’s still got the new play magic which is the Alleyway Theatre’s niche.
This play is still being titled a “project” but don’t let that put you off. I’m thinking of the early audiences of the musical HADESTOWN which just won eight 2019 Tony Awards. I’m sure that back in 2010 when HADESTOWN was just a folk-opera touring in Vermont, nobody in the audience knew what the future would bring. WOMEN WHO WALKED ON GLASS is in the same boat, in development right here in Buffalo, and you have a chance to be part of something special that, with the track record of the playwright, has every chance of international success. [PH1]
Speaking of the 2019 Tony Awards another moment was also instructive when James Graham, who wrote INK, said that one of the reasons he loves theater is that “it allows playwrights to wrestle with difficult and divisive issues in a way that embraces complexity and encourages empathy.”
This play is complex, in that each of the women has been dealt some lousy cards in life, but they don’t fold…
And this play is complex, in that each of the women has been dealt some lousy cards in life, but they don’t fold, and as a matter of fact, they take charge of their lives, but not like a Disney heroine. It’s …. complicated. The way that they take charge might not be what you or I would advise, but it’s what they have chosen for themselves. So get over it.
The play starts after you sit for awhile in total blackness, when the disembodied voice of a younger woman calls out and is eventually answered by a deep bass male. But, undaunted, she presses on into the darkness and eventually “Katrina” (Emily Yancey) a college drop-out who is looking for a job is hired as a receptionist-plus by “Arturo” (Daniel Greer) who owns an audio recording studio which is kept solvent by providing other “services” to clients.
After the play I joked with Greer (think of an Irish bear) that he usually gets cast as a cop or a priest, but, looking back on this production, I realized that “Arturo” has the best qualities of both. He keeps order on his beat and acts as a father-confessor.
Then we move around the corner and meet Bridget, a reckless, spoiled rich brat who ignores “nice guy” co-worker “Peter” (Trevor Dugan) because she has a thing for “Mike D” (James Cichocki) an older biker / stand-up comic with HIV. HIV but not AIDS as he proudly points out. Cichocki is also the costume designer and I must say that it took me awhile to recognize the actor right in front of me. Well done.
And then, perhaps the most complex trio of the evening, teenager “Zoe” (Jamie Nablo) who has been sent away by her dad to live with his old friend and (literally) partner-in-crime “Lance” (John Penepinto), a man with particular proclivities who has a teenage daughter “Abby” (Gayle Petri). I’ll leave you to see this for yourself, but I can tell you that these actors and actresses are very brave, very brave.
Afterwards my wife said “That Jamie Nablo is some actress the way she can change her voice, facial expression, and body language so quickly depending on the situation. ‘Zoe’ is one very clever, very manipulative girl.”
The stories of the above-mentioned Katrina, Bridget, and Zoe are told over multiple scenes, and somewhat “out of order.” (“Did that bother you?” was one of the questions on the survey which is handed out after each show.)
But the other three actresses/characters tell their stories in monologues, a technique which provides the audience with a psychic pause and acts as a good counterpoint to the “live action.” In one monologue we have “Elizabeth” (Niki Nowak) telling us that she needs more from a relationship than one person (either male or female) can provide and people should just accept that. “Amanda” (Sandra Roberts) teaches us a lesson about owning your own power. And “Raven” (Lillian Reszel) raped at age 13, moves on in her monologue to a funny story about a college tryst with a young exchange student, an ex-Mossad interrogator. See, GIRLS WHO WALKED ON GLASS is not a hash tag movement, it’s not a protest march, it’s not a social media rant, it’s a work of art – a play that wrestles “with difficult and divisive issues in a way that embraces complexity and encourages empathy.”
I would be tremendously remiss if I failed to mention Betsy Bittar, marvelous in four “utility” roles as a moderator for a women’s support group, as a pissed-off waitress, as the “den mother” for “the girls” in a higher-end strip club, and briefly as Zoe’s “Aunt Ella” (very touching).
Even though the three nights of previews are over, audiences are given a short pencil and paper survey to complete (e.g. what left you puzzled, what was an unforgettable moment) and changes will no doubt be made. For example, printed in the program we read: “Audience members are encouraged to each find a way through the various spaces, sometimes choosing from among as many as three simultaneous scenes.” That may have seemed like a good idea when the program was printed, but by the night I went, groups were deliberately led by an actor to whatever was “assigned” for that group in order that they experience all the scenes and hear all the stories. And that is still a work-in-progress as on the night I went, the two audience groups were melded at one point and then it was confusing as to whether “my group” was supposed to stay where we were or move on our own to the next vignette.
Wear comfortable shoes, because you may end up standing for periods of time and there will be walking on uneven surfaces through the entire theater, even back into the Alleyway’s dressing room, which is put into service as, guess what! a dressing room for a fictional strip club (great scene by the way).
The short survey also asks which scene resonated with you the most and for me it was the ending which was very busy but I was lucky enough to be standing near Emily Yancey whose character was making a phone call. At one point she paused, and my heart just melted, because I knew what had happened on the other end during that pause.
Photos courtesy Alleyway Theatre | Lead image: L-R Emily Yancey as Katrina, Daniel Greer as Arturo
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!